Europe and Central Asia
13 Aug 2019

Catching fish, not seabirds

New EU law that gives seabirds a fighting chance against bycatch

Long-tailed duck (Clangula hyemalis) © Yves Adams, Vilda
By By Dr Euan Dunn, Principal Marine Advisor, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds

Dr Euan Dunn has been working for our partner, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) for over 20 years. His role includes policy development and advocacy on the interactions between fisheries and marine birds. A key part of his work is promoting environmental integration in the EU Common Fisheries Policy, including the impact of climate change on marine food webs, and reducing the environmental impact of fisheries, with particular attention to the sandeel fishery and the bycatch of seabirds in fishing gears. He shares with us what the new EU technical measures regulation means for seabirds and the history behind this law coming into place.

After months of negotiations in Brussels, today sees the entry into force of a vital lifeline for European seabirds, as well as marine mammals and turtles, that are killed and injured by coming into contact with fishing gears. We greatly welcome the new Technical Measures Regulation that now makes it binding on Member States to ‘put in place mitigation measures to minimise and where possible eliminate the catching of such species…’. 

The so-called ‘bycatch’ of seabirds on baited hooks and fishing nets is collateral damage that has a long been recognised as a serious problem but has taken the EU nearly twenty years to address properly.  In February 2001 I attended the Food and Agriculture Organisation Committee on Fisheries (FAO-COFI) in Rome when the European Commission first presented a ‘Preliminary Draft Proposal for a Community Plan of Action for reducing incidental catch of seabirds in longline fisheries’.  To put flesh on this spineless skeleton it would take another frustrating decade of evidence-collecting and campaigning by BirdLife, and tens of thousands of seabirds needlessly drowned, before the Commission and Parliament adopted an EU Plan of Action in November 2012.  Although the plan was voluntary, it did have the great merit of a powerful objective, namely to ‘minimise and where possible eliminate’ bycatch, and it also now covered all fishing gears, not just longlines. 

And ‘needlessly drowned’ because, unlike many more intractable environmental challenges, proven, cost-effective technical solutions already exist to prevent bycatch and are in routine use around the world.  South Africa is a shining example with a staggering 99% reduction in albatross deaths in the hake trawl fishery since BirdLife’s Albatross Task Force started working there in 2006. So although the EU has dragged its feet behind global best practice, it is heartening to see its legislation catch up today. It not only gives legal teeth to the EU’s aspirational EU Seabird Plan of Action but also represents overdue delivery of the Common Fisheries Policy’s (CFP) ‘ecosystem-based approach to fisheries management’.   

The next challenge, however, will be to translate this legislation into concrete action.  The regulation is not prescriptive and it will be down to the Member States in regional sea basins to tailor the measures needed to their particular mix of fishing fleets and seabirds at risk.  One of the highest priorities is the Baltic and (mostly eastern) eastern North Sea where around 90,000 seabirds, mainly seaduck, have been estimated to die in gill-nets every year.  With European seabird populations declining relentlessly it has never been more urgent to tackle this and the other multiple threats they face.

From previous experience of other regional decision-making under the CFP, Member States too often default to the lowest common denominator.  So while the new Technical Measures Regulation potentially offers much better protection for our embattled seabirds, the focus now switches to the Member States and the need to hold them to account.

Stichting BirdLife Europe gratefully acknowledges financial support from the European Commission. All content and opinions expressed on these pages are solely those of Stichting BirdLife Europe. The European Commission is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.